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date: 19 June 2018

San Francisco

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History

Timothy G. Lynch

San Francisco 

San Francisco Bay is the premier harbor on the American Pacific coast, and it has played an important role in the maritime development of the western United States and of the Pacific Rim in general. As the leading port city of nineteenth-century America, San Francisco served as the hub of Pacific maritime commerce from 1850 to 1950. The fog-shrouded entrance to the bay was not discovered by Europeans until 1775, when a Spanish expedition heading north from Monterey first happened upon the sparsely populated region. At that time, the Spaniard Juan Bautista de Ayala declared the harbor to be the finest he had ever seen, ample enough to provide cover for all the ships in all the world’s navies.

The bay was originally utilized by Native Americans of the Chumash, Miwok, and other tribes, who employed tule reed canoes to ply the waters in search of fish, marine mammals, and sundry other items to trade. By 1780 the Spanish had constructed a small settlement at Yerba Buena, consisting of a small garrison, a mission, and associated buildings. Fewer than five hundred Spanish settlers maintained a presence there, engaging in trade with both natives and other Europeans, exchanging agricultural commodities for sea otter furs that could be sold for substantial profit in Asia. A burgeoning trade between California (now part of Mexico following that country’s separation from Spain) and the eastern United States centered on hides, tallow, and other agricultural commodities developed in the 1820s and 1830s, heightening America’s interest in the region.

The settlement at San Francisco grew slowly until the discovery of gold in the region in the late 1840s. News of the strike attracted settlers from around the world, transforming the sleepy community into a thriving urban entrepôt. Thousands braved the perilous journey around Cape Horn—a trip of at least one hundred days—trekked overland from the eastern United States, or arrived via the Panama route to try their luck in the goldfields of the Sierra foothills. The number of vessels clearing East Coast ports for San Francisco increased from 20 in 1848 to 777 the following year; many of the vessels were sleek clipper ships that promised speedy delivery to California. The creation of the instant city saw thousands of newcomers take up residence in the area, participating in the gold rush and its associated industries. The huge influx coincided with the transfer of California from Mexico to the United States, a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. The United States established a naval presence in the area, opening its first shipyard on the Pacific coast at Mare Island in 1853.

The gold rush completely transformed San Francisco. As sailors abandoned their stations to take part in the gold rush, captains resorted to crimping and shanghaiing to crew their vessels. The city earned a notorious reputation as the Barbary Coast of the Pacific, and it enjoyed its reputation as a libertine port where virtually all behavior was tolerated. Even after the gold rush subsided, San Francisco maintained its prominence as a center of maritime activity, a role that is reflected in the works of American author Jack London.

Following the gold rush, San Francisco played an important part in the burgeoning American whale fishery. As American whalemen depleted the stocks of Atlantic sea mammals, they looked further afield for new stocks. The Pacific pods, found from the South Sea to the Arctic, provided ample opportunity for profit; vessels routinely called at San Francisco for repairs or to take on fresh supplies. Other commodities that played an important role in the development of the port of San Francisco included grain, lumber, and salmon; these were vital trade materials whose collection exacted a terrible toll on the men responsible for the task. Over time, seamen began to organize unions that would protect their rights. As the nineteenth century closed, San Francisco became a center of labor activism, with much of this activity centered on maritime activity.

A number of strikes followed the creation of the Coast Seaman’s Union and the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP) in the early twentieth century. Headed by Andrew Furuseth, the SUP organized sailors around the key themes of wages, hours, working conditions, and union recognition. The foundation of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union, under Harry Bridges, brought similar gains to shoreside maritime laborers.

San FranciscoClick to view larger

San Francisco.

A bird’s-eye view of the city and harbor in 1868. The New York Public Library / Art Resource, NY

San Francisco was largely supplanted by Oakland and other cities in the mid- to late twentieth century as rising property costs and the lack of an integrated rail network doomed the port. Despite the lack of sustained port activity today, the city continues to trumpet its maritime heritage through the works of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and the rich research resources housed at the J. Porter Shaw Library.

[See also London, Jack, and Unions, subentry on United States.]


Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1909.Find this resource:

Delgado, James P. To California by Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Kemble, John H. San Francisco Bay: A Pictorial Maritime History. New York: Bonanza Books, 1978.Find this resource:

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Schwendinger, Robert J. International Port of Call: An Illustrated Maritime History of the Golden Gate. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1984.Find this resource:

Timothy G. Lynch